Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Rasagolla of Odisha

Nobin Das, a local confectioner of Kolkata, earned the title "Rasagolla's Columbus," thereby likening him to the Italian navigator who supposedly discovered America. There are similarities between the two in ways more than one.

When Columbus set foot on American soil for the first time, America was already taken! The marauder cum navigator was encountered by Carribean natives, the Arawaks. They and the denizens of the five hundred or so groups of Amerindians and Carribean islanders had been living in the Americas for thousands of years before Columbus.

Unfortunately for Nobin Das, when he introduced, what was to become India's national sweet, to Kolkata, the Rasagolla too was already taken! By the time the recipe reached Nobin Das (which was either in 1868 or a few years earlier through another confectioner, Haradhan Moira), it was already a traditional item in Odisha - standard fare in the cities of Bhubaneswar and Cuttack, and of course in Puri, the medieval town that also gave the world the Kheeri (Kheer or Payasam)!

Savoring Rasagollas in Odisha is one unforgettable experience. Driving southwards on National Highway 5, just miles before the capital city of Bhubaneswar, lies the village of Pahala. The entire village - mind you, I mean each and every family - follows exactly the same business, selling Rasagollas, Chhenagaja, and Chhenapoda. There are dozens of identical looking stalls right along the highway. It would be heresy for an Odia not to stop by one of those stalls and try some of their delectable wares.

A newcomer, used to the standard "Bengali sweets", would hardly recognize the fluffy, cream-colored wonders, almost as big as tennis balls, that are sold at Pahala as Rasagollas. But that is what they are. As a matter of fact, those are exactly how Rasagollas were supposed to look like for centuries before Nobin Das started marketing their crumbly, chewy descendants, calling them his own.

Luckily for Nobin Das*, the Rasagollas from Pahala begin to sour hours after they are made and cannot be shipped elsewhere. Inside a refrigerator, they can stay for a day or so at best. That is also why some local folk enjoy them piping hot, although many others seem to prefer them cold! Either way, a Pahala Rasagolla is ticket to 100% gastronomic bliss!

Pahala is not the only place you can sink your teeth into those exotic dollops of cheese. Tucked deep inside rural Odisha, lies the town of Salepur. An unassuming little place otherwise, its Bikalananda Kar Rasagollas are simply divine! These ones look a lot like their Pahala counterparts and are equally famous in Odisha. But they are eaten by the Salepuri locals with crispy Puris as the accompaniment! Although it may seem unconventional at first, a mouthful of the combination would instantly tell the uninitiated how well the Rasagollas and Puris complement each other!

But Rasagollas are not the sole Odia creation. There are Chhenagaja, Chhenapoda, Rasabali, and Rasmalai, and much much more that Odisha has to offer. In fact much of its ancient culinary treasures are hidden even today, waiting to find their own Nobin Das's and Haradhan Moiras. Odisha, the state that gave the world Rasagolla and Kheeri is still undiscovered country, and the Mecca of gastronomic delights!

* Nobin Das discovered this medieval recipe and introduced it to Kolkatans, who were only used to the dry Sondesh. He also had the advantage of being located in Kolkata, where his product could easily be noticed. It was a certain Bhagwan Das Bagla who popularized the dish. Nobin Das's son, K. C. Das, figured out how to can them, and eventually became rich and famous!